Last month, I had the opportunity to visit three different democratic institutions, two with long histories and one newcomer: the House of Commons in London, the European Parliament in Brussels, and the Bundestag in Berlin. When I went with college students studying the European Union, I didn't exactly think of them as historic sites, but of course they are. The visits made me reflect on how many embedded messages I saw at each; how different they are from one another; and how powerful such spaces can be. At all the sites, the one common take-away was a sense of process, not of butter churning or weaving, but of the complicated, often messy, but vital work of democracy.
Photographs weren't allowed in the visitors gallery United Kingdom's House of Commons, at Westminster, but it's a familiar sight (above) from both the news and various films and television series. It's unexpectedly tiny though--you feel as it you're on top on the members of Parliament--and it's absolutely clear that this is a place where tradition is venerated. You're welcomed into the visitors' gallery by someone in formal dress; the mace is always in place when the house is in session; and speakers deliver their remarks face to face, never crossing that red line (that tradition holds is a sword's distance away). Although the chamber was partially destroyed during World War II; it still is all about tradition. It's clear that the United Kingdom is a place where tradition matters, where even if voices are raised in debate; that a sort of gentility from an earlier century seems to prevail. Our visit to the chamber came at the end of a great walk on the Monarchy and Parliament with Context Travel, so we came well-equipped to understand both the traditions and the centuries-old delicate balance between the two; something made real in this space.
The European Parliament in Brussels couldn't be more different. The Parliamentarium (above) an interactive museum devoted to the work of the European Union is high tech and modern, providing multiple ways to explore the work of this young institution. To me the central feature of the main meeting space was the emphasis on multiple languages, as the room is ringed by translators making every meeting available in every national language of member states. It's not tradition that's venerated here, but rather it's the effort to make the experience both distinctive by language and distinctly unified by working together. I wondered what will this site be in a hundred years--how will it be perceived?
And finally, the most moving of the spaces to me--the Reichstag in Berlin, now housing the German Bundestag (Parliament) The building is not much more than a hundred years old, but has seen destruction by fire in 1933, virtual abandonment during the Cold War years, and now, since German reunification, a restoration that revealed to me a great deal about the ways in which Germany attempts to understand its own 20th century history. A huge glass dome now tops the building, providing light and transparency (and amazing views over the city), serving, perhaps, as an antidote to so many dark days of the 20th century.
Inside, you can still see graffiti from the Soviet soldiers who liberated Berlin at the end of World War II (although Wikipedia tells me that racist and sexist writings were removed upon agreement with Russian diplomats). The building houses a number of striking contemporary artworks, all of which reflect upon the country's past. Artists from each of the Allied countries of World War II, the victors over Germany, were commissioned to create works. I tried to imagine a situation in which the United States would invite victors over us to create works of art in Washington, DC, and I couldn't. It's a testimony to the power of art--and the power of individual stories found in the graffiti--that these are what I will remember for a long time.
The take-aways for me as a museum person?
- First, visit a place you wouldn't ordinarily go to. If you go to art museums when you're in a city, visit a historic site; or vice-versa.
- Second, consider those implicit messages about big ideas--like power and democracy--that are embedded in all sorts of places
- And thirdly, trust in the power of art and of individual stories.
Below, a shout-out, with the flags of the European Union, to my funny, thoughtful, usually hungry, but often surprising and thought-provoking travel companions on these visits. Their perspectives helped me see things in new ways.